Tuesday, January 31, 2012

O If Life Were Made of Moments

The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
22 January 2012
Epiphany 3+, B
Mark 1.14-20
Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near. Amen. Our gospel text today is full of movement. John is arrested. Jesus goes to Galilee. Although John had been preaching in Judea, Herod – the ruler of Galilee – has him arrested. Jesus goes right into the midst of this area and continues preaching that John had started. Simon and Andrew are at work casting nets, doing physical labor. Jesus calls them and they leave their nets and follow him. James and John are casting their nets, Jesus calls out to them, and they leave their livelihood and their family to follow this rabbi from Nazareth who is always on the move.

Not only is he on the move, he’s on the move in a place where he could easily be overtaken with trouble. Can you imagine being at work, knowing that someone has been taken away because of their message, and someone saying very similar things comes along and tells you to come with them. Might their nerve impress you? Might you roll your eyes at their calls, knowing how dangerous it might be? Might you just think them crazy? Last week we heard Nathaniel question Jesus’ call on his life because of where Jesus was from. This week we have four men who leave home, income, and family because of Jesus’ audacity.

Mark makes no mention of these four disciples weighing their bags before getting on the road. The follow Jesus on his journey. They just go. The temptation here is to say that we should just drop everything and follow Jesus, too. If we give in to that temptation we may also judge ourselves harshly for failing to not give up so much so quickly. Rather than taking these four as the absolute example of discipleship, let’s keep Nathaniel in mind: slow to follow and waiting for something more concrete than a shout from beside a lake.

Rather than offering us an absolute example for how to answer Jesus’ call, this passage – along with our First Corinthians reading – offers us an example for how we are to live. The specifics of the First Corinthians letter are particular to the church at Corinth, but the rationale of all those commands is timeless: the time is short, and the present form of this world is passing away. Things are being changed and we’re on a journey. The forms of the lives that James, John, Peter and Andrew had come to their end. In their encounter with Jesus their lives were changed, and Jesus told them how their lives would be changed: instead of catching fish, they would become fishers of people.

Those who Jesus has called to follow him have changed lives that they cannot help but share with others. In Jesus the Kingdom of God has drawn near. While Jesus is particularly calling some disciples in Mark’s gospel, he’s directing our fisherfolk today to cast their nets broadly: to invite all into relationship with Jesus. Rather than fishing for food for a living in one place, they’re called on a journey of following Christ and learning from him. As they learn from him and grow to be like him, they go preaching on their own in various journeys near to their homes and far away.

The Christian life is not a series of moments: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, and so on. As the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods says, “O if life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one, but if life were made of moments then you’d never know you had one.” Rather than being a series of moments good and bad, the Christian life – all of life – is a journey from cradle to grave, from baptism to burial. Whether our answers to Jesus’ calls are immediate or with more hesitancy, we are a people on the move. Always.

On the move, Jesus’ call on our lives should affect how we live. The way we treat all people is influenced by our faith – we’ve promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. That promise was made expecting God’s help, and we will fail in keeping it. We’ve also promised to admit when we’re wrong and work to be reconciled to those we’ve wronged. While Episcopalians tend to not like the idea of “evangelism” it is a tenet of the gospel. Part of our objection to it, however, tends to be based not on the idea itself inasmuch as how others have done evangelism.

In lives on the move, we meet other people. We smile at people on public transportation, or we curse at other drivers. We offer support through Facebook comments or say hateful things anonymously on YoutTube. We encounter Christ here assembled as Christ’s body, and at the Table in bread broken and wine poured. We also encounter Christ in the other and we recall the self-giving love of God who came to dwell among us as humans all the way to death. We evangelize by taking good news to those in need. Shouting “repent or burn” on a corner doesn’t sound like very good news to me.

Following Jesus on the journey means we need to pack lightly and be adaptive. But our journeys are not always as light as we might hope. Adapting and changing are scary things for individuals and institutions. As I move into my last semester I’m starting to feel as though things are tumultuous considering all the changes that are coming to my life. I will not be in school for the first time in twenty years. I am leaving friends in New York City with whom I have been building good relationships for three years. I am leaving classmates about whom I care deeply and who have provided comfort and challenge to me when I have needed each of those things. I may be moving to the other side of the country from anyone in my family. Before all of that I have to do all my schoolwork and other projects about which I am excited but will be a lot of work.

But it’s over the tumult Jesus calls for us to follow him, to leave those things which may be holding us back from being closer to him, helping others come to know him, or seeing the Kingdom of God as it has drawn near. While we’re giving James, John, Peter, and Andrew’s quick and enthusiastic reply to Jesus’ call, we aren’t given their thought process or how they felt after leaving their toil and kindred to follow Jesus on the Way.

The Kingdom of God has drawn near, and all of creation has access to it. In order to see and experience, though we have to evaluate what things hold us back from being closer to God, what things we love more than Christ, what idols we have. These things may be live-giving and good for us, but we cannot hold them so close that they block our ears from hearing Christ’s call to adapt and be ready to move. For me this means moving away from my beloved General Seminary and my boys off campus. We will stay in touch, and there will be ongoing support, but I must adapt as my call changes.

I must adapt, and you must adapt. Always. The Church must adapt as it moves forward and discerns Christ’s call for it in the new realities of society it finds itself. Jesus’ call to us and to all of humanity is relentless, though. When we don’t hear or we can’t hear, Jesus keeps calling. When we hear and don’t listen Jesus keeps calling, no matter how many times we say to stop. Jesus’ call to us is as relentless as his love for us. In knowing this love we are called to share it with others as we build relationships with them and care about them, traveling lightly on the journey and adapting as we go. Amen.

I am a Pharisee

I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, January 29 as part of the community's ongoing exploration of the Gospel of John. The text is John 8.1-11; read it here.

Before we read the text I pointed out that for most of the first millennium of the Church's history (until about 900 CE) this passage does not appear in most manuscripts of John's Gospel and there is almost no commentary on it from Greek commentators. A theory about its exclusion is that Jesus' generosity made leaders in the Early Church, who were committed to very strict discipline, uncomfortable.

I really like for things to be fair.
I like rules.
I am an enneagram 1 – organized, efficient, and with very high standards – for myself and others.
My high standards far too easily turn into being overly critical of others and myself, expecting perfection from all.
I want to be right.
About everything.

Believe it or not, I played football once upon a time.
I was ten years old and a lineman.
I hated it.
No, I didn’t hate it because I got hot and sweaty
or had to wear pads
or the time it took up.
I hated it because I felt like I was then only one who got it.
I would come home from practice and rant about being yelled at that day.
“You could drive a Mac truck through these gaps!” the line coach had shouted…as those to my left or right stood too far apart from me.
“WHY DON’T THEY GET IT!?  The play is white, so you go right! It rhymes!”

While my self-perception is that I’m striving for excellence, that is easily not others’ – particularly teammates or younger brothers’.
Self controlled? Yes. Rigid? No.
I like my systems that others or I have put in place – particularly when or because they work.
If they don’t, I prefer to change the system the appropriate way rather than ignore it completely.
Systems protect people.
Systems keep people safe.
Systems save time.

If the characters in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, I would most likely be a Pharisee.
They had inherited a tradition that kept them distinct.
It kept them in touch with God.
It defined who they were, and the woman in today’s reading broke it.
They come to Jesus as he’s teaching with her and want his judgment.

These Pharisees have brought a woman who was caught breaking the law.
These men who want to be right have come to trick Jesus and test him.
Perhaps this test comes after Jewish leaders had lost the power to execute.
If Jesus sides with the woman he ignores the Law.
If he orders her death, the civil authorities will be thoroughly displeased, to say the least.
Jesus doesn’t answer their questions, though.

These are people concerned for the words of the law, but not its intentions.
They aren’t concerned with her relationships and how her adultery may have broken them.
They don’t question her spiritual state or even if she’s penitent.
There is some suggestion that rather than trying to win her love back, her husband found people to witness her sin to bring her to trial.

As concerned as they were for the law, they weren’t concerned about her.
They cared more about being right than showing love, and the Law existed to give guidance on showing love to God and neighbor.
Jesus, however, loves the woman.
Instead of answering any of the mob crowd’s questions, he makes a judgment that if any of them is without sin they should start throwing the rocks.
No one does.
They all leave,
one by one,
starting with the elders, those most steeped in this tradition.

When he finishes writing in the dirt Jesus looks up at her and asks where everyone is.
A crowd came. Now it’s gone.
“Has no one condemned you?...Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

If the character’s in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, that means we can find ourselves in two positions in this text.
We have a crowd of me: Enneagram 1s who want to follow the laws and enforce the rules.
And we have me, broken, scared, and just out of danger being told
“Neither do I condemn you,” and being sent to sin no more
And we have Jesus, whom we all imitate, challenging the zealots and loving the guilty.

Jesus’ sentence isn’t fair.
She had been caught in adultery, and that was against the Law.
There were two witnesses other than her husband, with whom her relationship was broken.
The system protected her husband’s relationship.
While Jesus is expecting that a zealous crowd here be totally honest in their motivations, he still spares the woman.
The Law was very clear in its letter.

God’s love for us in the intent of the Law isn’t fair, though.
Rather than being condemned we’re told to go and sin no more.
No matter how many times we are caught in unfaithfulness to our promises, messing up, failing to love God and our neighbors.
Each time we’re told, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lying in Ordination Vows

Over the last few weeks (a month or so) I've participated in conversations about the diaconate. Many of my seminary classmates have said that at their ordinations to the diaconate they would have to lie in their ordination vows. A professor said that many people have to. One said his bishop said he could cross his fingers. Where would people be lying in their ordination vows? And why? The vow in question is the first question of The Examination (BCP 543), "My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?"

As these conversations have been happening, others have been as well, and a big event has, too. On December 21 I knelt before my bishop and he prayed, "Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Joseph; fill him with grace and power, and make him a transitional deacon in your Church." I was ordained as a transitional deacon, it's in the prayer.

Actually it's not. The constant references to my being a transitional deacon or to the transitional diaconate have annoyed me the last few weeks. I don't want to get into the idea of cumulative orders where they stack up like nesting dolls. or talk about direct ordination to then presbyterate. I'm not an advocate of that. I am, however, an advocate of deacons, their work, their lives, and their ministries.

My classmates have said that they will have to lie in their ordination vows, but I think that presents a problem. Rather, I should say I did not have to lie in my ordination vows. I do believe that right now I am truly called by God and the Church to the life and work as a deacon. Saying that I'm a transitional deacon betrays the importance of that life and work. While some people advocate ordaining people directly to the presbyterate, one of the reasons I pursued orders in The Episcopal Church was to serve time as an ordained deacon, called to a  special ministry of servanthood under my bishop modeling for all the baptized that servant ministry to which we are all called.

My understanding of my call to the priesthood is that the Church forms its priests by serving as ordained deacons first. I don't believe that I am called to be an ordained deacon for life, but I am a deacon right now. I am not a "transitional" deacon anymore than Bishops Harris, Robinson, Parsley, Gray-Reeves, or Curry were transitional presbyters. While some say that those called to the priesthood should be ordained right to that order, I think that instead we might discern as individuals and in community when people are called to be priests.

Rather than setting the date of an ordination to the priesthood six-twelve months to the day from the diaconal ordination, why not take the process of priestly ordination just as seriously as we do postulancy, and candidacy, and diaconal ordination? While people seem to hem and haw and build up loads of anxiety before their first meeting with the commission on ministry or for getting candidacy, it seems like skating from that point on, and no one seems to question if they will be ordained to the priesthood in an exact timeline per their diocese.

Apparently that I'm even saying these things could hold my process up in some dioceses, too! When discussing a GOE answer from this past week I told classmates of my intentional inclusion of a deacon in a liturgy and cited the diaconal ordinal. They were from the same diocese and almost both immediately said that in their diocese my advocacy for the ministry of the deacon would lead to questions among the committee if I might not be called to the vocational diaconate.

Throughout my seminary career I have been such an advocate, and I think it has to do with my formation about ordained ministry happening a)with vocational deacons around and b)such a strong teaching on the tradition of the church that I could never have thought about being ordained directly to the presbyterate - although one of my closest friends and mentors (in the tradition from which I came) was pursuing just such a process. During that time, however, she was on trial and discerned herself and in community when she would be ordained an elder.

Scott Gunn wrote tonight about Broken Things in the Church. I think one of the things broken in The Episcopal Church is not the diaconate, but our treatment of the diaconate. As Episcopalians we say that we firmly believe in the three-fold ordering of ministry. Our understanding of the ordering of ministry is important to us in ecumenical dialogue, but I think oftentimes we act like there are really only two orders of ministry: priests and bishops.

In a sermon at General Convention 2009 Bishop Barbara Harris implored the church to stop treating LGBT people called to ordained ministry as though they were "half-ass baptized." If we continue to treat vocational deacons as though they're half-ass ordained (limiting their use of the title "The Rev", disallowing them from wearing collars, making them wear grey clergy shirts to tell them apart, saying that "the clergy" follow "the deacons" in procession, etc.), while encouraging deacons pursuing the priesthood to act like priests in waiting, we devalue the ministry of all deacons.

Rather than celebrating our three-fold ordering of ministry we say that only people who want to be priests and people who can ordained are ordained. Those other people who've had the prayer prayed over them are just fixtures, regardless of the good work they do in prisons, with seafarers, in schools, and all the other places deacons go to serve. I love telling people in the subway that deacons taught me to knit and explaining the ministry of the deacon to random New Yorkers who just wanted a picture of me knitting.

I'm called to that ministry at this point in my life. Maybe it's easier for me to embrace this because I don't have an ordination date yet, and I don't know what the timeline is. There are a lot of variables that may need to be worked out. Maybe it's a good thing for me, though. I'm not a priest-in-waiting because I don't know when I'm waiting for! I am a deacon called "to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by [my] word and example, to those among whom [I] live, and work, and worship, ... [and] to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." (BCP 543).

The Prayer Book knows nothing of transitional deacons, only deacons called to special ministries of service under their bishops, whether they are pursuing the presbyterate or not.